[3 October 2010]
What, no Sammy Davis, Jr? How can one compile a collection that chronicles the musical history of black-Jewish relations during the past 100 years without including Sammy? Sure there’s Little Jimmy Scott here, whose short stature and immense talent may rival Davis’s, but his version of “Exodus” lacks the spirit and passion that makes Scott such an interesting and important artist. Can he sing it? Sure, Scott could sing the Yellow Pages and make it sound like a Wagnerian opera, but the track is far from Scott’s best.
How about the contributions of the great Jewish Brill Building songwriters like Carole King, Ellie Greenwich, Cynthia Weil, Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller, Neil Diamond, Doc Pomus, etc. and all the hits they wrote for black Girl Groups like The Shirelles, The Crystals, The Dixie Cups and black pop Doo Wop acts like The Drifters, The Platters, and The Coasters? Their work isn’t present either? Well then what’s on here instead, The Temptations performing a “Fiddle on the Roof Medley”. Oy! Again, what a waste. The Temps in their prime could sing the alphabet and make it sound cool and heavy. Hearing them go “Diddle diddle dum” just makes one want to squirm.
Maybe the black Jewish artist Whitney Houston appears and does one of her legendary soulful renditions of emotional material. No Whitney either, instead we have the Queen of Soul covering George Gershwin’s “Swanee”, made famous by the Jewish Al Jolson in blackface. Couldn’t the anthologizers find a better show tune (“Swanee” originally was part of the score to the Broadway revue Demi-Tasse) by Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Jule Styne, etc. made famous by a Jewish performer like Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, and so on. Perhaps The Drifters version of Berlin’s “White Christmas” (that reached #2 on the R&B charts in 1954) would have been better. Sure, Aretha like Scott and The Temptations, has enough talent so that she could perform any tune and make it sound big, but one could go through life without ever hearing this cut and be none the less for the lack of experience.
The album’s producers seem to think the connections between blacks and Jews in the history of American music has been a secret. That’s an absurd premise. The cultural connections between the two minorities were well-known in the past to performers, artists, club owners, songwriters, label owners, and to everyone in the industry and the audience. The conceit here is that blacks liked Jewish music as much as Jews like black music. Then why were none of these tracks popular with black audiences? These songs were not hits. Instead they are novelty numbers, carefully culled from research into the archives of famous black artists.
I understand, to a point. I remember the thrill I felt when first hearing Billie Holiday sing “My Yiddishe Mama” on The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve box set, but it’s a minor song recorded at a house party somewhere and never meant for an official release. If you want to hear a real black-Jewish collaboration, listen to Holiday croon the anti-lynching ballad “Strange Fruit” by Jewish composer Abel Meeropol. That’s the real deal. No wonder Time magazine called it he song of the century in 1999.
The songs here seem to be chosen for their novelty value, and with musicians as talented as Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Slim Galliard, Johnny Mathis, and Eartha Kitt, there are some good tunes. Cannonball Adderley’s jazz take on the “Sabbath Prayer is especially poignant and beautiful. And blues great Alberta Hunter’s heartfelt version of the Yiddish torch song “Ich Hob Dich Tzufil Lieba” (loosely translated as, “I Love You Much Too Much”) certainly merits attention. But there are too many songs on this album that seem to be chosen simply because they are unfamiliar. That’s a shame, because there are many great selections that would seem to be well suited to this project, from Paul Robeson bellowing “Ol Man River” to Harry Belafonte swinging “Hava Nagila”. Maybe that album will come out sometime in the future.